Young Engineers

Are You In the Wrong Major?

September 4, 2013

Your choice of major determines your course load, peer group, and influences your academic and professional future. The right call can immerse you in subjects you’re passionate about and guide you to a career you love… but the wrong choice can doom you to increased stress, burnout, and failure.

How can you tell if you’ve made the wrong decision, and what can you do about it? Today, we’ll discuss the early signs of burnout, how to tell if you’ve chosen the right major for you, and what to do if it’s all going wrong.

Are You Burning Out Already?

If you find yourself burning out quickly or experiencing an unusual degree of college-related stress compared to your peers, it could be a sign you’re in the wrong major. Without refreshing stimulation from your subject and a passion for the work, long hours and fierce concentration will quickly take their toll.

Engineering students will often grind themselves to powder before admitting they’ve taken on too much or adopted the wrong course of study for their talents and direction. It’s both painful to watch and entirely unnecessary. It’s best practice to take a serious look at your choices if you observe the following alterations in mood or behavior:

Internal Indicators

  • Lack of motivation
  • Detachment from friends and family
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Generalized dissatisfaction and boredom

Physical Indicators

  • Persistent lack of energy or easy exhaustion
  • Unusually frequent illness
  • Unexplained physical pain or discomfort

Performance-Based Indicators

  • Lower grades
  • Difficulty keeping up with or understanding course material
  • Absenteeism
  • “Robotic” performance (i.e., doing what is needed, joylessly, and nothing else)

Stress comes with a lot of stigma attached, for those who “fail” to thrive under any and all conditions. As engineers, one would think we’d recognize the effects of strain and deal with it pragmatically, without the baggage of impossible standards and aspirin-crunching stoicism. We’re only human, however, and as prone to bad ideas as anyone else. Admitting you’ve simply chosen the wrong major is harder than it needs to be… but taking stock, investigating new courses of study, and shifting into a better-suited program are all much easier than four (or more) years of unrelenting stress.

Did You Pick Your Major for the Wrong Reasons?

Selecting an undergraduate major is a big decision – and the bigger the decision, the greater our tendency to incorporate irrelevant or erroneous factors in our decision-making process. It’s all too human to select your major based on either incorrect assumptions, external pressures, or irrelevant information – factors other than, for example, whether you’re the least bit interested in or suited for the course of study.

If you’re struggling disproportionately or experiencing the signs of early burnout, perhaps you chose your major for the wrong reasons. Examine your motivations and compare them against the following list of common misconceptions. If you find some or all of them played into your decision, perhaps it’s time to write off the sunken costs and change direction.

Did you choose a major

Too early?

It’s very rare to decide, as a teenager, what you want to do for the rest of your life. Most of us don’t have access to sufficient information to plan our careers at that age… or even to balance a checkbook. Getting out there – in college and through connections to the professional world – is necessary to make the right call.

Without checking the syllabus (for advanced courses)?

Introductory classes and first impressions are one thing, but digging in and doing the research yields better decisions. Did you really know what you were getting into?

Without consulting professionals in the field?

Academic advisors, if you’re honest with them about your strengths, weaknesses, and desires, are incredible resources. Even if their conclusions contradict your assumptions or initial research, you dismiss them at your peril. Working professionals in your chosen field, as well, can give you a clear-eyed understanding of what really lies ahead.

Based on high school experiences?

High school and college academics are entirely different worlds. You may have selected a major based on too small a sample, or written off your passion after one bad teacher or difficult year.


It’s (Almost) Never Too Late

One of the most pernicious errors that warp human decision making is known as the “Sunk Cost” fallacy. In short, we over-value investments in clearly under-performing ventures or poor decisions, feeling that to cut our losses would ‘waste’ the investment. For example, a struggling business owner might increase their investment and exposure in continued support of a failing enterprise, feeling that to shut down would render those previous investments meaningless. From outside, we can see the situation more clearly: further investment is very unlikely to recoup those past losses, only serve to delay (and magnify) an inevitable, painful failure.

While most often discussed in an economic context, the sunk cost fallacy is apparent in a number of human situations. Examples may include unhappy relationships, old and failing automobiles, or your choice of college major.

If you’re unhappy, burning out, and made your initial selection for the wrong reasons, fighting harder isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, you have to walk away from your investment and try something else. It’s a difficult call to make – no one wants to give up, and the culture pressures are extreme – but it’s sometimes the right one for you.
Have any advice for your struggling peers and colleagues? Share it here, in the comments, or tweet @EngineerJobs.

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Kenneth says:

Wow i swear i was just thinking to myself earlier that maybe i chose the wrong major, but then the thought crossed my mind that i just had to fight harder and spend more hours studying, ask more questions, and just step out of my shell and get the tutors that i felt i needed. But after reading this, who knows. People have been telling me not to give up no matter how hard it gets, and although i shouldnt worry about it it somewhat bothers me to considering letting them down as well as myself. Man im stuck right now smh.

Susy Smith says:

Amen to all that! I always knew I was in the wrong field despite being reasonably successful. But once you’re in, it’s so difficult to take another path. Money, family, and other obligations can make you forget that ultimately you will fail when your own misery finally ruins your life.
Been there, done that- now it’s almost too late and all those skills I learned to do that ill-fitting career can’t seem to find me any other decent job- never mind a career path.
Don’t wait! Research, volunteer, interview, learn, make a plan and change your life for the better NOW.

Jay Penn says:

A better indicator if engineering is for you or not is what you do on your spare time – hobbies. Do you build with LEGOs, do you do CAD projects for fun, do you spend extra time in the engineering fabrication shop, etc. Your hobbies tell a lot more about you. Just because you’re good at math or physics DOESN’T mean you’ll be a good engineer.

As a recent grad (BSME) I’ve experienced all of those things until I hit my senior design project; which I excelled in providing a good product for my teams’ client. My other team members, who were good students, didn’t do very well when it came to concept development, analysis, research, communication, scheduling etc; basically they’re good students.

Engineering is a tool to focus and discipline one’s natural abilities, and when allowed to use engineering as such I absolutely love it and have a tremendous passion for it.

JF Stackhouse says:

Excellent point, Jay.

Out of curiosity, what was your senior design project?

Jay says:

A bit of a delay, sorry.

Here’s a youtube video showcasing our design:

What is seen is a highway water filled barrier, and our lifting units (2).

I developed the concept and then designed it in Solidworks. I also led the client-team communications, etc.

JF Stackhouse says:

Neat design, Jay- though I think a version with some explanatory narration would be helpful. I had to play it a few times before understanding its function.